Note: This is an essay I submitted for a class entitled “Conceptualizing White Identity in the United States” in the fall of 2011. It is somewhat altered and extended but still mostly a product of three years ago. Because it was written for a sociology, and not a film, course, it primarily focuses on broader racial themes rather than explicit filmic analysis of the film’s storytelling methods and visual composition. Put another way, the film’s story lacks nuance, mostly boiling down to it’s attempt to be cringe-inducingly cutesy and fuzzy, and it is told un-originally and with little film-making investment or passion to boot, and it is thus a badly made film. But this essay is less interested in exploring the “how” of the way the film tells it story, the staple of most film reviews, than in the literal morality of the “what” of the story it is telling. Thus, this is less a film review than a piece on the implications of the film. And it is less interested in exploring how this is a bad film, which it is, than in how it is also a vile and contemptible one.
One of the most popular movies of the past five years, The Blind Side ostensibly tells the story of a young, lower-class, poorly-educated black male (Michael Oher, played by Quinton Aaron) who becomes a professional football player. However, the story it actually tells is that of a morally righteous white woman (Leigh-Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock) using her morality to help a poor under-educated minority succeed in a world that has dealt him a bad hand. And by world I really mean “other black people”, because the film has no interest in discussing social racism or discrimination and much interest in having it’s black characters conspire to cause Michael to do harm and fail to succeed. The film could simply have been mawkish Hollywood sentimentalism with a bland, sanctifying script that draws characters in shades of black and white (literally) and eschews any complication or hard-hitting drama, but it also outdoes itself by marrying this Hollywood formula with a quintessentially white-savior perspective on the world. The fundamental social appeal of The Blind Side cannot be separated from it being a white messiah story, the type of movie that exists to make whites feel good about their morality and colorblindness in the face of either villainous or incompetent African-Americans. Worse, it seems consummately proud of this fact and does little to hide it.
The Blind Side clearly shows on multiple occasions that main character Michael Oher is fundamentally unable to succeed without the help of white people. The entire film is predicated on this fact. In doing so, it establishes a fairly clear sense of racial hegemony under the guise of a liberal attempt to help a black student by affording him an education and a shot at success. It is because Michael is allowed to play on the football team at a white school in the first place that the film can distance itself from the institutions acting to push black people away from whites. In other words, because he is allowed to play on the team, blame cannot be put on the school for being racist and not allowing him to play. Instead the blame is put on black people who are perceived as incompetent and who do not understand the rules of the world, something the film explores through multiple avenues.
From the beginning, Michael is depicted as essentially unable to play football, despite the fact that the film clearly tells us he is talented at any sport involving a ball. Now, this could be perceived as a commentary on the fact that white people will assume he is talented because he is black, but the film has a black character tell us that he is skilled and then immediately go on to undo his comment as an untruth and proceed to legitimize the ways in which he can only succeed by being helped by whites. The film cleanly establishes white as the standard for competence and black as the standard for inferiority. Every professional attempt to explain to him how to play football fails, and he is essentially depicted as unable to listen to simple advice.
In order for Michael to learn to play with the white students, white lead Ms. Tuohy has to tell him to think of his team as her family (a rich white family) and to protect them against the other team just as he had protected her against the black youth who live near Michael’s old home (more on this later). The movie assumes we will just take this as him protecting his family, regardless of color, but the implication here is that in order for him to become successful at football, he has to push back against and abandon his blackness and effectively embrace his new white family regardless. In this light, the film goes to great lengths to contrast Michael as the “quiet, passive” black male stereotype, constructed by slave masters to publicize the extent to which their slaves enjoyed slavery and needed to heed their masters’ advice in order to survive in the world. Implicitly, they were children, as so is Michael.
Beyond this, Michael’s childishness is abused for comedic purposes. For instance, despite the fact that he is set-up to be physically stronger and better than virtually anyone else on the team, he has to receive physical coaching from a small child. Even later, we witness a scene of comic relief in which Michael and various recruiting coaches discuss Michael’s prospects for playing football in college. These conversations morph into silly scenes in which the recruiting coaches talk almost exclusively with the young white child, Ms. Tuohy’s son. Thus, the child’s immature requests are depicted as more important, visually, to both the coaches and more appealing to the audience than anything that Michael actually has to say. Quite literally, in fact, the film visually silences him as a white child must speak up to “legitimize” him to other white coaches. The character literally overcomes Michael’s screen-time with a much younger white child with apparently better reasoning skills, implying this character has greater visual worth than Michael, who fits the “docile and grateful” and “loyal disciple” portrayals of minorities often found in white messiah films. As such, his past and future are essentially abused to make white audiences laugh at his incompetence and the hyper-competence of the young white child.
The Blind Side plays off of “The Culture of Poverty Theory” in order to elicit emotion as well. In contrast to the Type-A, powerful, commanding upper-class white woman played by Sandra Bullock, we are shown Michael’s mother, who represents unsympathetically a fairly pure stereotype of a poor single black mother. According to the film, she has a dozen children, and whenever she is mentioned she is depicted as a drug abuser. In contrast to the white mother who defies stereotypes and exerts her individuality by going against what her friends expect of her, the black mother is a stereotype. Although the film tries indifferently to criticize some of Leigh Anne Touhy’s friends for thinking Leigh Anne’s decision to help Michael was not wise, it still puts the focus on Leigh Anne. Thus, it pays lip-service to a white stereotype (that they are more concerned with superficial appearances than actually helping people), but then proceeds to immediately inform us that whites can easily overcome this hurdle due to their fundamental individuality. Black women on the other hard are not individuals, but stereotypes.
Even worse, the movie tells us that Michael, even when taken to foster homes in the past, always ran back to his mother, implying that he is unable to leave the black-neighborhood he grew up in. This fits with the “Culture of Poverty” viewpoint that Michael had adapted so well to poverty that he was unable to survive anywhere else. Michael’s mother states that he returns because Michael cares deeply for her, but the fact remains that when Michael moves in with the white family and begins to attain football success, he is unable to return to his mother. By becoming white, he is able to attain success for himself, but in doing so he has to abandon his mother. The film is clearly okay with this, as we are meant to feel happy for Michael when he succeeds. We are meant to see his mother as an obstacle of her own making.
If, in fact, the film meant to explore the intersection of racial discrimination, poverty, and family and how young blacks are forced into a vice grip where any success often means distancing them from their blackness, a potentially nuanced film could emerge. This is a common and legitimate criticism of affirmative action and, most notably, the preponderance of black men and women in the police force in inner city neighborhoods where they must functionally prove their legitimacy as people by being harsh on other African-Americans and accepting racial profiling in order to “police” their-selves as individual blacks by literally policing their race and sending them to prison. The criticism extends to other positions in society, for instance when black politicians are sought to safely criticize inner-city blacks and to legitimize white claims about poor blacks through their own blackness, known as black exceptionalism. Here, a successful black person gains sympathy among whites, who then can prove their own color-blindness, but only insofar as they implicitly distance successful black individuals whom they like from blackness as a whole. In doing so they entrap even successful black people by dichotomizing racial pride or black community and social success and worth, making them choose between the two. These themes dance around The Blind Side , but the film is only interested in essaying black stereotypes to prove that Michael can distance himself from other black people (in what is categorically seen as the “right” decision) with the help of his sympathetic new white mother.
Denial also plays heavily into The Blind Side. In the scene in which Michael and Leigh Anne return to Michael’s old neighborhood, Leigh Anne displays no fear initially; she appears totally willing to leave the car. However, Michael tells her to stay in the car, and after he leaves, she clearly displays visible fear while looking at the young black men she sees sitting on a nearby stoop. However, because it was Michael who told her to stay in the car, Leigh Anne gets to deny any sense of fear, and the audience can look at her as brave and willing to leave the film’s clearly defined safety zone for her. Implicitly, she defiantly proves her non-racism by walking around a black neighborhood even as the film clearly depicts this as dangerous. Of import is how she noted to her husband earlier in the movie that she was worried about Michael stealing something when she brought him home. Thus, we know she carries stereotypes about black people, and are meant to know this. As such, the film emerges as a self-fulfilling story of a white woman overcoming her implicit racism to emerge as a better person. In doing so it links to a long history of movies, most famously Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which claim to be progressive but in reality tell the story of white people overcoming implicit racism and proving their merit. In that 1968 film, as well, the black fiance of an elderly couple’s white daughter is an inhumanly nice and caring depiction of a successful black male, whose qualifications elevate him to saint status. Implicitly, he is worth-while not because he is black, but because his success, something most black people or even most people fundamentally can not reach, overpowers his blackness. Like The Blind Side, it is the story of one black person separating his-self from his blackness and white people coming to like him for it.
The Blind Side quite clearly adopts this pro-white-washing position in a scene where Michael returns home and meets the film’s only human villain. That villain, tellingly, is not a black person, but a group of “blacks”, and gangster stereotypes at that. They are shown taking drugs and, in one scene, threatening to rape a teenage girl. Intriguingly, I’ve heard arguments in the film’s favor saying that one of the ways it sidesteps clichés is by not having a clearly defined, artificially included antagonist. However, in place of specifically characterizing one of the black people from Michael’s old neighborhood as a villain, the film instead generalizes them and in turn paints all of them as villains and in fact as fundamentally non-individuals unlike Michael. The black people living in the poor neighborhood are collectively one entity, afforded no individual personality, all behaving the same way, and all meant as antagonists. They are not presented as victims of discrimination nor as flawed but complicated people; they are villains, pure and simple, and their actions are implicitly their own choice and fault.
In addition, there is a point late in the film where Michael again returns to his old neighborhood alone. While there, the people who are with him (all black) coax him into drinking briefly. Thus, the one time he does something socially frowned upon is when he is convinced to do it by other black people, implying that even black people who the white audience are supposed to sympathize with are not immune to the harmful effects of being surrounded by other black people. And in the one moment where he emerges as a non-passive actor, it is only to attack them for making him do something immoral and threatening his success. Quite literally, the film contrasts the passive stereotype of Michael with the dangerous stereotypes of the other black youth around him, literally implying the only worthwhile actions he should take in life are playing sports and attacking other black people who are the source of his wrongness. In contrast, both Leigh Anne and her daughter are given triumphant scenes in which they nobly defy expectations and defend Michael, because they, as individuals, have the freedom to do so regardless of what their white friends say. Michael’s scene is supposed to be triumphant as well, because he does eventually resist the temptation of the black people around him, but neither Leigh Anne nor her daughter give in to temptation like Michael initially does.
The one black person who holds a position of power within society in the film is the woman who investigates Michael’s college choice. Not only is she depicted as antagonistic to Michael’s success, but she is in the film as an example of aforementioned black exceptionalism. This allows white audiences to say that the film doesn’t depict all black people as poor and unable to succeed without white help, yet only doing so by placing her as an antagonist of sorts. The film here and throughout is a product of the white gaze and entirely uncritical of that gaze. It plays less like reality and more as a sort of collective white dream of white color-blindness and the desire to champion individual black people at the expense of blackness. This is a shinier, newer, colorblind “racial liberal” version of racism, a racism 2.0 as scholar Tim Wise calls it, but in it’s own way, The Blind Side, like Birth of a Nation almost 100 years ago, still comes from this white collective imagination and projects an image to white audiences of their fundamental individuality and their necessary role as the moral saviors of society and black people who are themselves incompetent and are so as a result of their own doing.
It is not only that family’s cultural and political allegiances that make “The Blind Side” something like a red state version of “Precious.” The Tuohys are wealthy white Southerners who send their children to a Christian private school and who treat college football (in particular when Ole Miss is involved) as a second religion. When Michael’s tutor, played by Kathy Bates, confesses her party affiliation to the Tuohys, Leigh Anne’s husband, Sean (played by Tim McGraw, who lends the movie further regional bona fides) wonders, “Who would have thought we’d have a black son before we met a Democrat?”
Who indeed? Or, for that matter, at least when audiences hear this line, a black president (who is also a Democrat). This movie’s generally warm, honest portrayal of Southern whites — a group that tends to be either sentimentalized or sneered at in movies and on television — is one of its striking features. Another is its thorough if somewhat understated conservatism. To the extent that Michael represents a social problem (or maybe a whole bunch of them, including poverty, drug addiction and family dysfunction), the solution depicted is individual, charitable and, at least implicitly, faith based.
Some of Leigh Anne’s friends wonder if she is helping Michael out of a sense of “white guilt,” a notion she laughs off without entirely dispelling. Whatever her deeper motives, her actions are fairly radical. After figuring out that Michael, who attends school with her children, is homeless, Leigh Anne offers him a bed for the night. Eventually she and Sean become his legal guardians and the leaders of a group — including their children, Michael’s football coach, tutor and teachers — committed to helping the young man succeed.
Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), for her part, benefits from a similar support network. She finds her way into an alternative school program for at-risk girls, and blossoms in the friendship of her peers and the patient encouragement of her teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). The school secretary (played by the comedian and talk show host Sherri Shepherd) and a kindly male nurse (Lenny Kravitz) also help Precious, as does Ms. Weiss, the social worker played by Mariah Carey. Unlike the private charity of the Tuohys, the kindness of the nurses and teachers who help Precious is sanctioned and supported by the state.
It may be something of an inside joke that Precious claims to be unable to determine Ms. Weiss’s ethnicity, given the similar enigma surrounding Ms. Carey’s background. But one notable difference between Precious’s benefactors and Michael Oher’s is that Michael’s are virtually all white.
There is an older male relative who engineers Michael’s admission to the school where Leigh Anne discovers him, but he disappears almost entirely from the movie, resurfacing briefly at graduation. There are brief scenes with Michael’s mother and one of his brothers, but the world he knew before the Tuohys is rendered in a flurry of broad strokes and is represented by a leering, violent drug dealer who offers himself as an alternative to Leigh Anne. The only nonunderclass black person is the N.C.A.A. official who shows up near the end to threaten the football scholarship that the Tuohys have done so much to help Michael earn.
“Precious” has been lauded for its honesty, and also faulted for its extreme, pathologizing depiction of black family life. African-American writers have been on both sides of this argument, and also in the middle. Armond White, the great contrarian of American film criticism (and the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle) accused “Precious” of trafficking in “racist hysteria disguised as social sensitivity,” and compared what he saw as its misrepresentations of African-American life to those in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”
Raina Kelley, in an essay in Newsweek, took a more ambivalent, less incendiary view, noting that the movie’s intense focus on an individual’s terrible story blunted its potential to make a larger statement. “I wish I could agree with those who say ‘Precious’ is just one more movie that feeds our vision of ourselves as victims,” she wrote. “Even that would have been better than what lies underneath: the fact that black people have begun to accept as unchangeable the lot of those stuck in the ghetto.”
And this is a critique that might extend to “The Blind Side” as well. Both movies tell stories that suggest a way out of poverty, brutality and domestic calamity for certain lucky individuals while saying very little about how those conditions might be changed. For all their differences, they ultimately occupy a common ground that is both optimistic and, at the same time, curiously defeatist. Both locate the problems facing their main characters in the failure of families — of mothers in particular — and find solutions in better families, substitute mothers (Ms. Rain and Leigh Anne), whose selflessness and loyalty exorcise the biological monsters who have been left behind. The fact that “The Blind Side” is based on a true story lends credibility to this sentimental idea.
Left or right, black or white, Americans love happy endings. Overcoming adversity is our national pastime, especially when it can also be a spectator sport. And we love stories of heroic educators, coaches and moms — Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver” — who change the lives of poor, marginalized children by teaching them hard work and self esteem. Let me be clear: I’m not disparaging either “Precious” or “The Blind Side,” even though I think “Precious” is a much better movie. They are both sincere and serious, and if they serendipitously share a premise, they also share a blind spot, which is hardly theirs alone.
At the end of “Precious” the heroine shoulders her burden and sets off to make her way in the world, a conclusion that may be objectively bleak — Precious is an H.I.V.-positive teenage mother who has only recently learned to read and write — but that fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption. We believe she will be all right because we would rather believe that than confront the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.
Michael Oher, at the end of “The Blind Side,” fares rather better, but the film concludes with a reminder of what might have been, as Leigh Anne peruses newspaper accounts of young men from his part of Memphis killed by gang violence. She wonders why he was so much more fortunate, modestly declining to mention her own role and thereby deflecting attention from the movie’s curious moral, which is that the best hope for a poor black child in America is to have rich white parents.Continue reading the main story
A film column last Sunday about the different stories of poverty in two new films misstated, at one point, the title of one of the movies. As the article noted elsewhere, it is “The Blind Side,” not “The Blind Spot.” (The other film that examines issues of poverty is “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”)